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Passenger outburst causes diversion of London-to-Washington flight

Thursday, August 17, 2006

BOSTON -- Two fighter jets were scrambled Wednesday to escort a London-to-Washington flight to an emergency landing in Boston after a disturbance in which passengers said a woman in a jogging suit paced up and down the aisle, peppering her incoherent mutterings with the word "Pakistan."

The federal official for Boston's Logan International Airport said there was no indication of terrorism, but passengers said they were unnerved by the woman and by the military response, just a week after authorities in London said they foiled a terror plot to blow up flights to the United States.

"It was a harrowing two hours," said Antony Nash, 31, who was on his way home to San Diego and was seated near the woman.

"I noticed F-15s next to the plane. I said, 'Oh my God.' And then we saw the emergency vehicles" waiting on the tarmac, Nash said.

Gov. Mitt Romney said the 59-year-old woman was from Vermont and became so claustrophobic and upset that she needed to be restrained. The FBI in Boston said the woman, a U.S. citizen, was arrested on charges of interfering with a flight crew.

Passengers said two plainclothes men on board and flight attendants ran up the aisle and tackled the petite woman, slamming her into the bathroom door, throwing her to the ground and putting her in handcuffs, passengers said.

The disturbance was enough of a concern that the pilot declared an emergency, which activated two fighter jets to escort the plane into Logan, said George Naccara, security director for the Transportation Security Administration for Massachusetts' airports.

Two F-15s were sent from Otis Air National Guard Base on Cape Cod to escort the airliner, said Master Sgt. Anthony Hill, spokesman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado Springs, Colo. He said the fighter pilots can intercept, shadow or escort commercial aircraft and, if ordered, shoot down an aircraft deemed to be a threat.

State police and federal agencies took control of the plane after it landed.

Passengers were taken off the plane, put on a bus and taken to a terminal to be interviewed, Naccara said. Their luggage was spread out on the tarmac, where it was rechecked by security officials and trained dogs.

The passengers were flown on to Washington on Wednesday evening, arriving shortly after 7 p.m.

Joan Bartko, of Manassas, Va., said everyone on the plane did as they were told.

"It was sort of surreal," she said. "You just know the best thing to do is stay calm."

Nash said he noticed the woman's oversized handbag appeared to contain items such as lotion that he believed should not have been allowed on the plane since the new safety regulations were put in place after last week's terror plot revelations.

Romney said a search of the woman's bag turned up matches and a gelatin-like substance, which he did not define, but there was no indication the items were related to terrorism. Naccara said he did not believe any items she was carrying were the cause of the emergency.

An airport spokesman, Phil Orlandella, previously confirmed broadcast reports that the woman was carrying Vaseline, a screw driver and a note referring to al-Qaida, but later backed off the statement. Naccara said it was not true.

The woman was to remain in federal custody overnight and was expected to be charged in a federal criminal complaint early Thursday, the U.S. attorney and FBI said in a joint statement. The statement did not elaborate on specific charges expected, except to say there was no evidence the incident was related to terrorism.

The flight from London's Heathrow Airport to Washington's Dulles Airport had 182 passengers and 12 crew members, said Brandon Borrman, spokesman for United Airlines parent UAL Corp.

Since the foiled terror plot surfaced in London last week, airports have tightened security in both the United Kingdom and the U.S. Liquids and gels have been banned from carry-on luggage, and even tighter restrictions are in place in the U.K.

Terror scares garner particular attention in Boston because of Logan's history. Members of al-Qaida hijacked two planes from Logan on Sept. 11, 2001, and flew them into the World Trade Center towers in New York.


Associated Press writers Jay Lindsay and Nancy Rabinowitz in Boston and Dave Zelio in Denver contributed to this report.


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